LUANDA, ANGOLA —
Angola is gearing up for a historic vote, as longtime President Jose Eduardo dos Santos prepares to step down after 38 years in power.
For more than two-thirds of the population, he is the only leader they have ever known. And the vast majority of eligible voters have never seen a ballot without his name on it.
Watch: Angolan Voters See First Poll in Decades Without Longtime President
Ana Maria Espirito Santos Monteiro has decided to do something she has never done before: Vote.
She's lived her entire life in Angola, but in those 60 years, this is the first time she's bothered to register. Dos Santos has been accused of rigging elections in his favor and of ruling with an iron fist. But he's now stepping down at the age of 74, leaving a ballot full of possibilities in what many of his critics say is the first opportunity for a real election in this Southern African nation.
"I'm going to vote for the first time," she told VOA, "because I believe that the electoral ruses won't be as they have been before on such a great scale. We want this election to happen transparently and fairly."
She's chosen the CASA-CE opposition party, which started in 2012 and has eight seats in parliament. They face tough opposition from the powerful ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which has chosen Defense Minister Joao Lourenco as dos Santos' successor. Polls predict an MPLA win.
However, many of this nation's nine million voters are excited about the mere fact that this is the first ballot they've seen without dos Santos' name at the top. The excitement is palpable in the sprawling seaside capital, Luanda, where political flags flutter from lampposts and over the traffic-clogged avenues.
Younger voters say they're excited, but can't imagine a country without a man who has ruled for their entire lives. Under his rule, the oil-rich nation has become one of the most unequal countries in the world, and many young people, like 27-year-old student Louis Gabriel, say they can't find work. The economy is a central issue in this poll, with both the ruling party and opposition promising sweeping improvements.
"I think this year will be different because dos Santos is not running, is not running," Gabriel said. "That's why it will be different."
Voting for a better life
Vendor Gniama Yamba says she earns just more than $1 a day selling cheap shoes at an illegal roadside market. Like many Angolans, the 25-year-old says she's frustrated she earns so little in a nation flush with oil wealth. Watchdog Transparency International ranks Angola as one of the world's most corrupt nations, and pins blame on the president and his family for mismanaging the country's ample resources, which include oil and diamonds.
Yamba says she registered to vote for the first time this year, and won't miss dos Santos.
"I won't miss anyone," she told VOA. "We want a new president to organize the country so that we will live well."
But not all first-time voters want change. Gaspar Domingos, 36, recently returned from a long period overseas and says he's sticking with the establishment.
"I'm very expectant, yes," he said, while walking toward a massive rally for the ruling party. "I believe that the MPLA is the big family, is the first community, that has a long story."
Is this real change?
Critics of the regime say the ruling party has intimidated voters and coerced attendance at its massive rallies.
Investigative journalist Rafael Marques has long been a critic of the regime.
"These elections are essentially just a process, because we already know what the results are, and most of the population also knows that the results are," he told VOA. "And the question is whether MPLA will try to understand how disaffected, how unhappy, the population is, and give more space to the opposition."
Opposition leaders are hopeful and confident, as is the ruling party juggernaut; but, for the first time many Angolans can remember, President dos Santos is done.